Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Is a university press right for you? An author compares its approach to that of the big commercial houses and finds some advantages worth considering.

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The state of commercial publishing nowadays is hardly what writers want to hear. But those with literary fiction and creative-nonfiction manuscripts should remember that bigger isn't always better anyway. Not only might a small press be a good fit for their work, but this alternative to big-house publishing has other advantages, too.

While a commercial house may be unable to take a financial risk on acquiring literary works that are "too quiet" or not plot-driven enough for the mainstream, small presses have different priorities. As Publishers Weekly's Jonathan Segura puts it, university presses care about the book, not about turning a buck. "It's hard to break through with short fiction as it is, and experimental work is 50 times harder," said Segura, a deputy review editor. "A university press tries to do something different--something that has it own voice, is edgy or less immediately accessible. That's where short-fiction writers will find the warmest reception. The editorial staff wants to do good by the writer."

According to novelist Ladette Randolph, who served as executive editor of The University of Nebraska Press, as graduate writing programs have grown, university presses have come to recognize the importance of supporting creative work produced in the academy that's too new or too risky to find a general audience but nevertheless deserves to be published.


In the past 20 years, university presses have experienced a shrinking library market for their scholarly books. For some presses, library sales have plummeted from as much as 70 percent of sales to as little as 20 percent, according to a 2007 article by Andrew Grabois on the book-industry Web site Beneath the Cover. Constrained by shrinking budgets and a demand for alternative media, libraries can no longer afford to be repositories of print knowledge, Grabois explains. Books must compete with subscriptions to electronic resources, journals, audio products and videos.

To help make up the loss of library sales, university presses have turned to trade publishing for a general audience. Poet Christopher Howell, senior editor at Eastern Washington University Press, says short fiction falls within a university-press readership, more so than a novel. "A novel by its very name suggests entertainment and is a strong factor for readers of longer fiction, but a short-fiction reader looks at sentence structure, metaphors, and matters that please the university-trained and literarily inclined reader."

Most university-press acquisitions editors, however, will seriously consider any manuscript if it has what Howell calls a "trifecta": It appeals to the library market, it appeals to a general readership, and it's appropriate for classroom adoption. He says he's had to pass up a lot of good novels simply because a university press most likely can't compete with the marketing budgets of commercial houses--for the latter's bankable authors, that is. University presses lack the deep coffers to offer large advances, author tours, or big advertising campaigns.

Old-time editing

Despite modest budgets and small print runs, there are distinct advantages to university presses. First of all, writers don't need an agent to submit, which is rare in commercial publishing. In fact, it's sometimes better without one: Writers get to form a direct working relationship with their editor, and that can translate into future projects together.

And these editors edit! They offer what Michael Griffith, a novelist and founding editor of an original fiction series at Louisiana State University Press, calls "old-time editing." They read through the manuscript, pose questions to the author, and give the writing close, empathetic attention--just as Max Perkins worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald to drastically revise his rejected first novel, This Side of Paradise, then lobbied it through Scribner's, or with Thomas Wolfe to cut 90,000 words from his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel.

"Perkins be dead," Griffith says. "All New York editors have time for these days is to give a manuscript a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. If a work isn't absolutely ready, something else on their desk is."

Success story

Furthermore, there's an upside to a small advance and print run--it's much easier to sell all of your books and be a financial success. Authors and their press can worry far less about money and engage instead in the quality of their words. On the other hand, you hear about agents dropping authors because their works didn't sell well enough with a commercial house or because their new manuscripts won't get published until the writers pay back their advance. Problem is, that advance may already be spent, and all of that stress is a potential source of writer's block. And with the sluggish economy, there's even more pressure for a book to succeed.

Another plus: University presses will keep a book in print much longer. Some UP authors stay in print decade after decade. "We see every author as important," Randolph said. In fact, Sarah F. Gold, senior reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, wrote an article a few years ago about midlist trade authors (those with a 7,000-to-10,000 print run) who went with a university press on their next book to escape the high-stakes sales demands of large houses catering to their bankable authors.

Literary seal of approval

My first story collection, Giovanna's 86 Circles and Other Stories, was published by The University of Wisconsin Press. It features Italian-American women and girls who spin their culture's lore to enliven a dying steel town. Though I didn't garner a big print run or advance, what I did walk away with after surviving a rigorous peer-review process was the literary equivalent of a laboratory-tested Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. My purse is the pride of knowing that my story collection was judged on its literary merit alone. Not only did the editor have to love it, but two esteemed authors, who were asked to critique it, had to enthusiastically recommend publication.

The first reviewer commented on the literary merit of my prose and its appeal to serious readers of fiction, the length of the manuscript, the order of the stories, and the fact that it would be a good book to teach in a class on the contemporary American short story. The second peer reviewer put a check on the form beside the line, "My final judgment is that this manuscript will make a major contribution to its field," and recommended publication with minor revisions. She critiqued individual stories and offered overall comments as well as line edits. I was grateful for her careful eye and used her report as a blueprint for my revision.

The final step was getting board approval. Once my book's publication date was scheduled, the editorial process began. I worked with university-press copy and production editors, marketing and direct-mail staff, publicists, interns and Webmasters.

I was also given the opportunity to suggest ideas for the book cover, and an artist created a cover design based on my input. After I received an electronic version of the cover, I made a computer printout. I loved it, especially the bold colors framing a picture.

What happened next is a small illustration, so to speak, of the voice I was given in the publishing process. I discovered that my printer's color concentration was off and the cover was actually much lighter. How could we use pastel shades when the jacket copy spoke of bold women and the power of storytelling?

It just so happened that I was soon planning to meet my agent at the Carnegie Deli in New York City. I pushed aside the bowl of pickles and napkin holder on the table and set down both versions of the cover. I asked his preference. Just then, Dora, our waitress, an Italian-American woman who could have been a character in one of my stories, came to the table with a water pitcher and an answer. "Darker colors around the border and lighter in the picture," she said. It was a perfect solution. I suggested it to the press's artist, who kindly followed Dora's advice.

My story collection did well in hardcover and came out in paperback two years later. And what I've come to appreciate is that a commercial publisher may not be so willing to accommodate authors as my press.

Location, location

The best way to find an appropriate university press for a literary work is to think geography. Regional writers or regional themes are often a priority, so research the university presses in your state or region and review their submission guidelines. For example, Nebraska's Flyover Fiction imprint publishes only works set on the Great Plains that go against type for the region, Randolph said. If the work fits regional requirements, a writer is far more likely to get a reading.

After that, Randolph says, it comes down to what the presses feel they can publish well. "I have had to say no to things I loved simply because I knew that it wouldn't be a good fit for our list and I'd be fighting with the house through the entire production process. That isn't good for the manuscript, and it compromises my reputation. I have on occasion taken that risk, but only for projects I felt were really, really exceptional, and even then it was a big risk," she said.

Other presses with a regional focus include the Minnesota Historical Society Press, which published Blueberry Summers, a memoir set in Minnesota lake country; the University of Michigan Press, which published a Great Lakes title, Greetings From Cutler County, a novella and stories set in a small town in northern Michigan; the University of New Mexico Press, which published The Iguana Killer, a story collection set along the Southwestern border; and the University of Hawaii Press, which published an anthology of Filipino fiction that meets its mission of publishing works set in Hawaii and the Pacific.

Keep in mind that there are exceptions to regional preferences. Also, there are a good number of university presses that publish literary works through contests rather than open submissions; these include the University of Iowa, the University of Georgia, Eastern Washington University, Ohio State University, University of North Texas, Notre Dame and the University of Massachusetts.

Perhaps more writers will now consider small- or university-press publishing given how hard the sagging economy has hit the big houses. When I gave a talk on the subject recently, writers approached me afterward with relieved looks on their faces. One said that, in effect, I had given her permission to consider small publishing venues--something she never did before because it felt as though she was lowering her sights. But when writers of literary prose remove the weight of big success from their manuscripts, what remains is the weight of their words.

Paola Corso's debut collection, Giovanna's 86 Circles and Other Stories, was published by The University of Wisconsin Press. She is a writer-in-residence at Western Connecticut State University's MFA program in creative and professional writing. Her most recent fiction credit is in the anthology Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian Americana (Fordham University Press).

Source Citation:Corso, Paola. "Is a university press right for you? An author compares its approach to that of the big commercial houses and finds some advantages worth considering." The Writer 122.11 (Nov 2009): 24. Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 22 Oct. 2009

Gale Document Number:A209105133

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